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TL;DR: The best meal of 2014, possibly forever.
The long version (photos here: bit.ly/daiduetx)
I booked the tickets in July on one of the hottest days in Arkansas. I figured it would be cold in November, I figured we could use a break from New England then, get away from the chill and immerse ourselves in the place we could have converged. In some universe, our dual selves are thriving in Austin. Maybe they even met. She planned on moving there after graduating college, I was waitlisted at UT Law. Maybe we would have locked eyes at Houndstooth Coffee, or walking down Guadalupe as the cactus flowers bloomed, but we stayed in New England and flew down last month. It rained the whole time.
We walked almost everywhere we went. When our feet hurt too much, we took the bus. When the bus stopped, when the town shut down but for Rainey and the side streets shuddered with cicadas, we took a car. We spoke to people on the streets and wandered into bars only to come out with our arms full of weird shirts and bumper stickers, we shouldered elbow to elbow in dive bars and abandoned sushi fusion restaurants. We argued, we bunked in a bungalow next door to a pawn shop and we found the most beautiful place, the kindest sort of love, and we didn’t even intend to.
It was the night we went to Salty Sow that we first fell in love with Dai Due. The Sow was packed, service was slow and we shared a drink against a cinderblock as we waited for fries and a seat at a communal table, so we paid our dues and ditched, walking down the street. The taqueria was closed, the coffeehouse was buzzing. “Dai Due,” I said. “It sounds Vietnamese.”
Just the thought of persimmon and green tomato crisp hummed like a cut on my knee, it was only a walk away tucked into a strip mall, inside to a velvety immersion of a crowd with no wait and servers with sweet smiles who didn’t care that we had raindrops on our shoulders and three sweatshirts between the two of us. It is, in fact, culled from an Italian phrase- “from the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care.” The business is ten. The restaurant is three months old but performs with the finesse of French Laundry and the sweetness of every beloved bakery and butcher in the small towns of America. It is a small regret that we didn’t bring our camera but trust that these are raw, taken before our gaping maws and in the throes of delight, hence their blur, hence their rush. I cannot apologize for our eager mouths.
We tongued succulent venison tartare, large, juicy chunks tenderized in citrus and habanero with sweet pickled onion and doused in egg yolk, Texas beef glistening with salt crystals surrounded by baguette grilled over an open flame.
Their wine list was entirely Texan, as varied in regional flair as France itself, their accompaniments house-pickled and stacked in jars to the ceiling. I had the shrub, apricot tinted with a rush of thick Gulf salt flakes, better than any margarita I’ve had, a honeyed touch of fruit brined in sweet vinegar.
We ogled the aged beef.
The Bedfellow surprises me sometimes, more often than I think, and though she’d have denied it, she was the first to ask for the dessert list, which is how we ended up with three perfect scoops of ice cream, homemade chipotle-vanilla with lemon curd no bigger than a golf ball but so succulently smoky and rich it was as if an entire pint of cream was condensed into each bite. We all but licked the curd from the bowl and danced to the front as if on a cloud of citrus and meat.
“When do you leave?” they asked, as we winced at the fresh sausages and terrines, lamenting that we couldn’t bring them home. Three days, we said, and a tall bearded man named Jesse wrapped up a package of jerky, handed it to us.
“For the way home,”
And we made plans for brunch the next morning. Jesse, the owner, wrote us in for ten.
As soon as we bit into our cemita we knew we’d be cancelling our dinner reservations. Sorry, Qui. You’ve had your time. We knew we’d go to war for their goat barbacoa and brave the walk across town for just a bite of the pon haus, known to us as scrapple up north with its crispy crust and tender cornmeal bite mixed with egg yolk and molasses, sticky conduits melding to our tastebuds and our brains.
With breakfast came dessert, a cake like no other- lemon cream cheese frosting, lemon cake, lemon curd, bursting with beauty and endlessness in a small ramekin. We ordered one and looked into each other’s eyes. I knew what she was thinking. She knew the same.
We ordered another and lingered as the crowds swept in.
Our dinner reservations were at nine and we were traveling all the way from across town, hurrying to make the silver line and fussing with ties and zippers. It was raining, we didn’t have an umbrella.
Time stopped inside the restaurant, the only words in my mind patiently waiting on my tongue to elucidate, “the ribeye, rare,” only to have our waitress return with two flutes of champagne and a large plate of ham, freshly shaved petals better than the finest roses, a gift from the house acknowledging that we were home, or that we were crazy, for eating four times in 48 hours and proclaiming and hugging strangers, for loving food to even an inkling of a degree to which they at Dai Due do.
The ribeye, rare. Beautiful bounty, a prayer and homage to a cow, to a state, to a craft that we gladly consumed. 28 ounces of meat dripping with fresh butter, fat salted to succulence with crisp edges that we sucked clean and a plate left empty.
They were sorry they didn’t have the lemon cake, they said, and before we knew it, a bowl of ice cream was between us, then two more, our beloved lemon curd and chipotle and a new avocado sorbet, fresh and creamy. Mixed, it was a love cocktail steeped in ice ready to melt atop our hot tongues, savory, tangy, delving into a bowl that seemed to never stop, between two girls with a love of Texas running through them already and a long walk home.
Our last day in Texas revealed the weather I ached for, a bright day uncharacteristic for the world we grew up in, sun shining and students out in the wild, the world converging for music and charcuterie on a lazy Saturday.
Inside there was a line snaking out the butcher shop partition, the sausages already disappearing along with the Taylor pork rolls, the steak, the meat for a Saturday supper with grills sizzling for the kill. And the fire blazed with brunch.
“I’m going to cry,” she said, and I nodded. I felt like I would, too, because walking in there felt like walking into a home you never knew you had, like finding your sister city on a map or discovering a bar you’d thought disappeared with what they called the good days, the ones we missed where people were regulars and regulars were family. We don’t have that here, not like this, never like this, and they sat us down with a hug. She looked at Jesse.
“I want to hug him,” and I nodded. I wanted to hug them all. But we ordered a patty melt to start, another shrub, another cold brew, and chilaquiles to satisfy the urge for Tex-Mex in its heartbeat. It is impossible to malign yet another perfectly cooked egg and a gigantic Texas avocado sliced on top of crisp chips, a warm sauce, venison sausage, homemade cheese, but it was the patty melt that stole the show.
It was a dynamic duo with a star that branched off and soared, and we agreed to order another for dessert which we devoured with gusto, licking the fat off our fingers. It was the most perfect sandwich, roasted like a pepper on the outside with a perfectly rare center and loaded with toppings, fresh bread, an essence of char and grill and life in every bite. Until they brought the cake, and the box, and the ice cream.
The apple cake was lavished with turbinado sugar, crisp thin layers warmed by the pastry on the outside to reveal a soft center pierced with fruit, fluffy with cornmeal and brown butter, winsomely heartbreaking enough to order another just to watch the ice cream seep into the cracks.
We hugged them all as we left, we couldn’t stop and they slipped us a box. Four scones for the airport, and as we left, I looked at the receipt. A friends and family discount, the discount appreciated but minute compared to the insinuation of closeness. And we cried. They patted us on the back, thumps in rhythm, “for the way home.”
For the way home, we smiled to each other as we walked out of the restaurant and stepped on the bus, for the way home, in the airport, sitting alone in our terminal waiting for a flight to take us back to midnight to the apartment we would arrive at around four AM, collapsing, for the way home as we ate the scones, tearful, careful bites of lemon and cornmeal and tore into the jerky like wolves.
We miss it like a lover we barely kissed, we yearn for its flesh, we sing its praises, and every time I look into the Bedfellow’s eyes, I see it, two kingdoms, two women, two flights. So here’s to you, Austin, and to you, Dai Due. Thank you for showing us the jerky, thank you for showing us the way. Happy 2015, to Dai Due, to the Bedfellow, to the blog, to you, readers, and to us.
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